Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Now THAT'S Scary!

What to be? What to be? Liam's costume was a snap. The Superman costume in the previous post has become ordinary clothing--he all but wears it to bed. I knew this would happen when I showed it to him upon bringing it home. And that's OK. He gets so much joy out of being a superhero that I decided to get him another costume, this one complete with pecs and abs, for actual Halloween. With his blonde hair he makes a fabulous Mr. Incredible, even if he looks more like Dash.

Here, he pauses to have a word with Thomas the Tank Engine, his other passion. I love how this little boy will stop and chat with anyone. He's so much like his Grampa Zickefoose. Sometimes he ducks his head and looks up at me in a certain way and I'm sure I'm seeing my dad at 6.
Liam is teetering, at almost 7, on the edge of being too old for Thomas (but not quite realizing that yet). He's tiptoeing into superhero territory.

Mr. Incredible conquers Pokey the Springer. Photo coach in background. He was a frog. That's why he's all green. If he didn't have to take his costume off to pee, he'd wear it around the clock. I think it's good for a first-grader to feel invulnerable.

Liam looks so tuff here.
Phoebe came up with both her and my costume ideas this year. The older and wiser that girl gets, the more I come to lean on her for ideas. Out of the clear blue, she decided she'd be a Crazy Cat Lady. She concocted a costume consisting of my stinky old oilcloth Barbour jacket, some too-short pants, clunky boots, bad socks, baggy sweaters, and a wig we'd purchased so Bill could be Shaggy a couple of years ago. A little bad makeup on top of it, a cluster of stuffed cats, and she appeared at the Artists' Gathering, a phoenix full-blown from nothing.

So, when trick-or-treat day rolled around, Phoebs suggested that I should be a Crazy Dog Lady. Or, more correctly, I should dress more obviously. Over the past two years, I have undergone the transformation from a non-dog person to a Crazy Dog Lady. This is just my coming-out outfit. I bought these pants just to drive Bill nuts. But they came in handy come Halloween.
I made a sign with a puppy photo of Chet on it, and little tear-off tabs for the Boston terriers I was "selling." (see them in my pockets?) The sign said, " Boston Terrier Puppies for Sale. Parents, grandparents and great-grandparents on premises."

If Chet looks afraid, well, he is. He looks like a puppy who has just been bought by the person he was afraid might buy him. He looks like he thinks he's doomed to a lifetime of wearing hats and jackets, of being called Ookum Schnookums, and of having little boots strapped onto his feet when it's raining. Although I do buy him tasteful designer doggie polo shirts whenever I get within an hour of a Target, and I do moosh tasty beefy morsels into his Royal Canin kibble, and he has been known to sleep with his head on a down pillow, and he labors under a topheavy load of ridiculous nicknames, I can assure you that overall, he's content with his lot as the darling of the Crazy Dog Lady of Whipple. He was just embarrassed for me, that's all. Ecch, I'm embarrassed for me.

Monday, October 30, 2006

My Kids Think My Friends are Cool

One of the great luxuries of hosting the Artists' Gathering was being able to include our kids in the fun. Living as far out in the sticks as we do, Phoebe and Liam LOVE having company. But company that will play with them and bring cool things to look at is even better.

This post is going to be an unabashed rhapsody on the coolness of one Larry Barth of Stahlstown, PA, the world's greatest bird carver. If that sounds jejeune of me, consider: I've judged several bird carving competitions, and I'm well aware that the field of bird carving is given to breathless hyperbole. The Ward Foundation World Championship is held each spring in Ocean City, Maryland, and it is huge. Carvers from all over the world compete. There are big blowsy blue ribbons and lots of puffery. But Larry Barth is the undisputed Mr. Universe of Bird Carving in my eyes, and pretty much everyone else's, too. That's because he knows birds from the inside out, and he has the soul of an artist coupled with the mind of a physicist.

I paint birds on paper. So does Larry. Here are some life sketches he made of a least bittern. He draws like a demon. But then, having drawn them from every conceivable angle (and from life, I must add), Larry carves those birds from wood, needing in the process to know every single feather and shape; how they look upside down, from the rear, head on, from above and from underneath. He's got to get all those planes and shapes just right. He's got to carve every feather and burn every barbule in with a woodburner. THEN he has to figure out how to construct, from copper, brass, metal, epoxy, and what-have-you, the plants they perch on. He's got to figure out what kind of base will support all this, and make all the supports invisible. THEN, and only then, does he get to paint these birds with acrylic paints, making sure they have the sheen of healthy feathers without looking like plastic. And he does all this, and makes it look absolutely effortless, and heartbreakingly beautiful. Here's his 2006 World Championship winner, 'I'iwi and Ohio Lehua. For this piece, he traveled to Hawaii and sought out the endemi 'i'iwi in its native vegetation.

Larry also makes dinosaur skeletons out of brass, with a torch and soldering iron. For fun. His coolness quotient shot through the roof when he brought those out. The kids were transfixed, none more than Liam, who immediately began plotting to pinch them for his very own. Larry and his wife Linda had anticipated this reaction, and had brought an encylopedia of trains with which to trade Liam back for the tiny dinosaurs. It worked pretty well. (I was rooting for Liam, though, and reminding Larry that tiny brass dinosaurs make fabulous hostess gifts!)

In the end, Liam, who is either going to be Superman (note pumpin' abs) or Mr. Incredible for Halloween, triumphed. He got Mr. Universe down on the kitchen floor, planted a boot on his chest, and subjected him to a thorough lickin' from Chet Baker. Baker is sensitive to people in need, and sympathizes with the underdog in any altercation.

I probably don't need to mention that Larry Barth, in addition to all the virtues I've listed, is also a mighty kind and fine human being. Kids and dogs are never wrong.

Birdchick, Becalmed

Just a public service announcement to let you know that Birdchick's blog is temporarily incapacitated, as you may have noticed (I certainly have missed it!). The server that hosts her site got corrupted on Saturday, and they're working on the problem, but not fast enough for Sharon and her loyal fans. Birdchick's alive and well and running around Cape May NJ's Fall Weekend, and she's painfully embarrassed to find her site down. Hang in there; she'll be back better than ever, with much pent-up blogging instinct to vent.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Crystal Blue Persuasion

I never tire of watching Chet make his way down the trail in front of me, seeing how the sun hits off his shiny back, how his hind legs work in graceful complimentary curves as he makes his way catlike through the leaves.

I could not stay inside this morning. After a frighteningly blustery and cold trick-or-treating adventure, the sky was scrubbed fresh and what leaves remain are vivid against an immaculate sky. Chet and I lit out around the Loop. I took pictures every few feet.

At the overlook, I leashed Chet, and he studied a little black heifer without tightening the lead. I keep asking myself what he'd do if he weren't leashed, but I can't allow myself to experiment with this precious little animal. He walks obediently ahead of me, slack in the leash, and sits down to watch the cattle. Is this the same ravening beast that tore after the cattle only a few weeks ago? Yes, but this one is connected to me by a nylon strap. And this physical reminder to behave is the only way that training will override instinct, I fear. Maybe when we're both old and gray, I'll be able to trust him.

Farther along the trail, Chet led me into a part of our woods I hadn't walked for years. It's the best "timber" we have, with 3 and 4' dbh oaks and hickories in a clear understory. Lovely. And not scheduled to be cut, like the big oaks and hickories just over the fenceline are. There was a deadfall with associated branches and a thick grove of young pawpaws that had come up in the light gap. Pawpaws are easy to spot in late October, because they hang onto their huge golden teardrop-shaped leaves long after most of the others have fallen. And in the middle of that deadfall was a tremendous buck and three does. I was so glad I'd leashed Chet, because I got to watch that animal thunder out of there, rocking like a wooden horse, his antlers a high crown. I know there were at least five points on each side, not counting the brow tines--a thicket of points. My best guess is that he had 12 to 14. I was so glad to see him. Perhaps he's the son or grandson of our fallen monarch, whose picture I snapped about five years ago in a snowstorm. The picture looks a little over-sharpened, because I want you to see the high crown of tines on his antlers. When he'd stride out into the orchard he looked like a pony, gotten loose. This kingly animal lived here in peace, until one Thanksgiving morning when a bow-toting poacher figured we'd be busy with the turkey, and killed him practically in our back yard. We went out that afternoon and found where he'd been shot on our land, then dragged across the property line to be field dressed and gutted. I've never gotten over that murder, for murder it was. A buck that grand doesn't go unnoticed for long, and people who assign value to an animal based on the size of its antlers will stop at nothing to possess it--end its life for their own bizarre acquisitive gain. Now he's a dried-out head on a wall somewhere, or maybe a couple of antlers on a plaque, spider webs collecting on them. I liked him better alive, in our woods, where he belonged. He should have been safe here.

There's irony here, because as noted I was cooking a turkey while this other premeditated murder was going on, and yes, I'm thinking about that for a moment. Wishing this buck better luck, knowing that the yellow NO HUNTING sign Bill posted right over the deadfall where the buck was laid up is no guarantee of sanctuary. It's a request for compliance, nothing more, and useless against greed and avarice. And now I'm retying my bootlace and going on up the hill through the golden and blue shimmering orchard, toward home.

There would be more photos, but Blogger is giving me fits, as usual. I've been trying to post this since noon with only partial success.Pah! what a waste of time on one of the last golden days of October.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Cedar Waxwings, October 26

Snow on sumacs and they whirl down
Defining sleek
Velvet masks, paint-dipped tails
Porcelain, breathing.

Frost comes early or late
Sometimes it waits
and the mandevillas keep blooming
like Christmas in Jamaica.

This morning, too early,
a taint in the air
of greenery, dying
The same smell hurricanes leave.

The jessamine, translucent in death,
drops small blossoms.
They'd have scented the whole kitchen
Had I remembered to bring them in.

I crunch through icy grass
The souls of dying plants
Rise up around me.

Thank you, birds, for staying
though I have nothing to offer you
You seem content there, in the glowing birch
To look at me, looking at you.

the first poem vanished in a scheduled outage
which turns out to be a good thing
Second go is better--JZ

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Take this Boston, Please!

It might be argued that, as much fun as we all had at the Gathering, Chet Baker had the most fun. That dog went from lap to lap, soaking up attention like the sponge he is. He pogo'ed up to kiss people on the lips for the first hour or so, then settled on doggy lap-dancing for the rest of the visit. We decided that Baker is a cat in dog's clothing.

When Baker's really happy, surrounded by a human pack, he gets a new Nylabone and chews it noisily in the center of the circle. He makes an incredibly loud grinding noise that all but drowns out the conversation. I buy Nylabones practically every time I go to the store, and I had better have one somewhere in the plastic shopping bags when I come home, or Baker becomes despondent.

So at about 1 AM, when the music party segment of the Gathering was going full bore, with Bill and Debby Kaspari and Mike DiGiorgio grooving away on guitar and banjos,
and Sir Barry Van Dusen and Brenda Carter clacking away with spoons,
Baker was gnawing. Krrrunk krrrunk krrrunk krrunkety krrrunk. Larry Barth, who, as a sculptor, appreciates the value of a good vise, offered to hold Baker's Nylabone in the crook of his knee. Baker thought that was a grand idea.
But soon, he wrenched the bone away and trotted over to plein aire oil painter Jim Coe, and lodged the bone in Jim's leg to chew.Before I go on, I must give you a little taste of what this remarkable man can do. Look at those landscapes!! Those exquisite birds! This man paints those landscapes OUTDOORS. Plein aire. He's out there with an easel, working with oil paints in all kinds of cold and weather, and there's no other way to get a painting like that. For more of Jim Coe's work, go to his web site.

Back to Baker's pestiferousness: Do you think Chet Baker cares that the man he's pestering to death is one of the finest plein aire painters in the world? I'm not exactly sure that having a Nylabone jammed in the crook of his knee would have been Jim's first choice for the evening's entertainment. But like a cat, Baker knew where he was not invited, and pressed his advantage. Jim took the bone and tossed it back to Larry, who lodged it enticingly in his bent leg. Baker extracted it and raced back to chew it on poor Jim, who was trying to appreciate the music. Krrunk krrunk krrunk krrunk! This went on for at least ten relays, with everyone getting more and more tickled about it each time. Larry tried tempting Baker with other toys, but it was of no use.
Chet Baker preferred to grind away on poor Jim, and nothing would dissuade him.
As everyone left Sunday afternoon, I assured Jim that within a year, he'd miss Chet Baker so much that he'd doubtless have his very own Boston terrier. Don't hold your breath, Baker!

Rest assured you are thoroughly loved, little doggie.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Thanksgiving, a Little Early

From left: Mike DiGiorgio, Jim Coe, Debby Kaspari, Cindy House, Zick, Phoebe, Shila Wilson, Brenda Carter, Linda Barth, Larry Barth. In front: Liam, Chet Baker and Barry Van Dusen. Photo by Kitchen Boy Bill.

Yes, it was some weekend. One of the best of my life. I got all my best painter/artist friends (missing only a couple) to come out here for their yearly Artists' Gathering. This get-together is held at our homes, and we pass it around. Since most of them live in and around New England, most of the Gatherings happen there. But this one would be special, and I guess the Weather Gods agreed.
It has been indescribably nasty and cold here of late--day after day of rain and wind. There has been one break in the weather, and that day was Saturday, the day everyone was here to see why we love southeast Ohio so very much. You'd swear Indigo Hill knew a bunch of landscape and bird painters were descending on her. She put on her prettiest fall dress and smiled all day long.Everyone got a load of the steep relief here, no big deal to New Englanders, but a workout nonetheless.I got to show them my beloved Chute, with fresh rain sliding over the sandstone stairs. Birds were popping out of the trees: a very late blue-headed vireo, a merlin, gobs of bluebirds and yellow-rumped warblers; even a male Cape May warbler. These people don't miss much.

I can't tell you what it meant to me to have my best and oldest friends stay here and drink in our home, our birding tower and our beloved woods. To eat at our table (fed to repletion by Chef BOTB), even sleep on our beds, couches and floors. To see our kids interact with them (more on that later). I was verklempt the entire weekend.

Usually, I go to these gatherings and hunt like a ferret for information, contacts, new colors to try, new techniques. I bring lots of stuff to show (we do show-and-tell of what we've been working on in the past year) and I stare hard at what everyone else does. This one was different. I don't know what has changed in me, but this time I spent all my time just appreciating these people who mean so much to me. Yes, I stared at their artwork, which gets more magnificent with each passing year, and got some tips and loads of inspiration. But mostly, I thought about how lucky I am to have such dear friends.Here's Bill, taking a break from kitchen patrol. He worked so hard all weekend to make sure no one wanted for anything--including breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, and digital projection capability--and to make sure I stayed out of the cookpots and just had a blast. Like anything he puts his mind to, he was hugely successful at that. Debby Kaspari looks like his little ventriloquist's doll, sitting on his shoulder, doesn't she? Hello, Bill! I'm having a wonnerful time here!

Because there was so much to look at and so many things to stop for, the hike around The Loop got a little lengthy for Phoebe and Liam. They decided to turn back and walk home by themselves--a first. Watching their little forms disappear back down Gallagher's Fork, knowing they knew their way home perfectly, and finally, at 10 and almost 7, were brave enough to act on that, filled my already overfull heart.
Phoebe said, "I was a little scared. We heard a gunshot and quickened our pace from then on."

Monday, October 23, 2006

More Grebe Apocalypse

It's done, I think. Although I toned down the highlights on the bird's breast after this picture was taken. Truth is, it'll probably never be done; I'll just have to quit at some point. In response to Carolyn's question, I double-checked on those images of firefighting planes, and I can't quite see how they take on water. There's no visible bucket on the undercarriage. I think it involves doors that open up as they skim over the water. This one has just gotten a load, closed its doors, and is dribbling a bit. There is no grebe in the water tank. Our hero is celebrating that fact.

Back to the story to be illustrated. There's this baby western grebe, see? And the first thing that happens to it is an otter tries to eat it. Cool. I like otters. So I painted that scene. Pretty straightforward. No masking or lurid colors. I tried to make the otter look more disappointed than menacing, but I made the daddy bird look pretty pissed off. He's wearing his Napoleon Bonaparte-style hat of fury. If his bill appears bent it's something that happened in the translation from Flickr to Blogger. Blogger is still not working for me. Booooring.I think a lot as I paint this stuff. It seems to me that if an otter even wanted to eat a western grebe, it could annihilate one in a couple of seconds. Those mustelids don't fool around.

Down, Zick. You're just the illustrator here. Always a problem. I can't shut myself up.

The second painting was to be of the baby western grebe, grown up now, caught in a hailstorm! Zoiks! I like painting underwater scenes. This one was pure fun. Lots of masking film and liquid masking compound involved. Salt, too, for the underwater sparkles, sprinkled into the wet blue wash. Here's the grebe and the hailstones, masked out with film and liquid masking compound. I've painted the dark wash right over them, and sprinkled salt into it to make sparkles and bubbles. I found a very cool film taken in Monterey, of a WEGR rowing by the camera in an underwater canyon, its feet pumping like crazy fans out to each side. I suspect it was made at the Monterey Aquarium. Wherever it was made, it was priceless to me. Oh, I love my job. Here , I've peeled off the masking film and painted its feet and the hailstones.Bill, who looks at my stuff as it develops, commented that the hailstones needed some little lines following them into the water, because they were reading as big bubbles. Yep. Little lines go in, and suddenly there's peril! Ow! Ow! Ow!

I'm happy with this one. It seems to have captured the silvery quality of a bird swimming underwater. Wouldn't you know, it was the quickest and most fun to paint, too.

Here ends Grebe Apocalypse Painting (Intermediate Level). This post is late today because I am fried crispy from a weekend that was way too much fun. Imagine a dozen people all packed into our house, talking art, playing music, and eating our heads off for two days. Pictures and posts to follow. I'm still processing all that went down, and it was all real good. Sitting over coffee and tea Sunday morning, we got to talking about the sometimes outrageous demands of illustration, and I brought these paintings out (not without some trepidation) to gales of laughter from my friends, most of whom have the sense to paint bucolic landscapes and birds in non-apocalyptic settings.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

High Drama on the Drawing Board

Impending disaster is right where 7-year-old boys like to be. Liam draws these tableaux of airplanes flying into the sides of houses, while somebody in a hot-air balloon drops bombs; trains plunging off high trestles into shark-infested waters. In this one, note the closed eyes of the supplicants as they hail the king. I like the king's mustache.
I really like doing kids' magazine illustration. It's different from a lot of illustration jobs, in that there's much more storytelling in the pictures. Another trend is that there seems to be a lot of disaster. I'd never slam Steve Irwin, but he did usher in a trend in kids' nature TV that tends toward high peril and drama (usually manufactured). Well, he wasn't the first; he was about two decades after Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, where the point was always to dart and immobilize the animal. It was my favorite, mostly because it was the only animal show on TV. As if what the animals do in everyday life weren't interesting enough. I never watch Animal Planet anymore, but when Phoebe was small, I logged quite a few hours glancing at the screen to see what she was taking in.

That's how I came to love John Acorn's program, "The Nature Nut." I loved everything about it: the way he wrote and performed silly songs about the creatures he featured; the way he imparted such a solid idea of their natural history without ever resorting to pedantry or impending disaster; the way he empathized with animals. A pivotal episode was about a fathead minnow named Joe Snumm, who lived under a dock. There was a song to go with it, too. Go John. Probably the only fathead minnow ever to make it to network TV.

Much, much too gentle and wise for today's television. Now what we get are endless shows about animals that just might poison you or bite your leg off, and jittery khaki-clad hosts who court disaster. Standing back and watching quietly is so passe.

One of the last things I watched on AP was "Jane Goodall: Return to Gombe." I soak up anything I can about Jane. And sure enough, AP manufactured a thread story that involved a chimp that was old, and maybe sick, and missing. The chimp was off somewhere doing something else when Jane came back to her old research station. And every commercial break panted, "Will Jane find Fifi?" Please. Just let the camera run. Show us Jane, show us a troop of chimps doing what chimps do. That's way more than enough.

I got off on manufactured drama in television. Sorry. I guess it's because I've been grunting, cussing and sweating over a kids' magazine illustration for the past few days. I'll tell you about the other two paintings in another post. They were fun to do, no big deal.
But the third painting. There's this big forest fire, see? And the grebe is minding its own bidness out on the lake, and suddenly out of the sky comes a huge smoke bomber airplane, coming down to take on water to dump on the fire. Eeep! And the poor grebe almost gets slurped up in the intake, oh no! So somehow all these elements need to be incorporated on about half of an 8 x 11" page. All the while accommodating the text, which accounts for the strange L-shape of all three illustrations. Oh, my. I'd never painted a forest fire before. Google image search to the rescue. There were some killer forest fire images on the Web. Found a smoke bomber, too. Here's the initial drawing, all wet down. The plane and bird are masked with film and masking compound to keep the background washes from coloring where they will go. First, the fire orange. In watercolor, you paint lights first, darks later,over top of the lights. Lots of orange and yellow. I started shooting progress photos of the painting, but pretty soon the painting was sitting on me and threatening to smash me, and I quit. I had to save all my limited mental power just to grapple with it. At this stage, it's starting to get really hairy. Ugh. My sky is too livid. I've got to bring some smoke across it.So I wet the sky down with a spray bottle and touch a brush loaded with ivory black to the wet wash. There, that kind of looks like smoke, I think.

This is the point at which I'm unable to shoot more progress photos. I'm about to lose control of the painting. Dang, there are so many things going on here! The main thing I fight is that it keeps reading as a really pretty sunset, not an awful forest fire. So I paint in the actual flames, and put in a lot more smoke, and it starts to work. Then, the smoke bomber goes in. I'm not really done with it at this point, but I have wrestled it to the ground.

Don't get me wrong: I love doing stuff like this. But it isn't easy. It's a real challenge. I'm not faulting the magazine, the writer or the editors. They know what kids like to read, and I need the work. But this painting was a real bear to execute, and I'm glad to be on the other side of it. Definitely earned my pay on this one! That right there is about as much impending disaster as you'd want to pack into a 3 x 8 x 8" bird painting.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Serial Phone Murderess

It was a day. I awoke at 3 AM, never to fall back asleep again. I think the medical term is "sleep maintenance insomnia." I can fall asleep every night at 11:23, letting a book slump to my chest, but 3 AM comes around and my body, for reasons all its own, decides it's morning. It's a drag, and I know it's the artifact of an overactive mind, darting about between stressors. I think about one for awhile, and then go over to another, more upsetting one, and then to a third, and a fourth. And I run around those miserable bases for the next three hours, until Liam comes clumping into the bathroom on the other side of the wall at 6:07 sharp. And my day begins, whether I'm ready for it or not. Today was cloudy and mild, and another ten bazillion ladybugs decided our house was where they wanted to spend the winter. Every time I went outside, I came back in with at least six on me. I've taken to swatting them like mosquitoes, smacking them as hard as I can as they bite my neck and arms. I know there's an insect rights advocate out there just waiting to spank me, but that's what I do. I will invite any IRA to spend the winter here, and guarantee that he'll be smacking them by Christmas without giving it a second thought.

Being of no real use to humanity today, I decided to keep my hands off two in-progress bird paintings, and instead to put away four washing cycles' worth of clean laundry that had stacked up in baskets while I painted and drew. I was just sharp enough to decide whose socks were whose, and no more. Of course, by now there were two more baskets full of dirty clothes to do. And so, because I was in the midst of calling my two Witches for support, I took the cordless phone handset downstairs in the laundry basket. I threw the darks in the machine and came back upstairs. Looked for the phone: not in its cradle. Pushed the PAGE button. No friendly beep in response. Trudged back down the stairs, plunged my arm up to the shoulder in the washing machine, and came up with the cordless handset in one try. Like the Titanic, its lights were still burning down there under the sea.

Mind you, I had already drowned the other handset late this summer, when I was outside talking on the phone in the rain. That was OK, but then I heard a little plupping sound from my rainbucket, and found a juvenile common yellowthroat about to drown. I put the handset down, saved the bird, photographed it, released it and went inside smiling, leaving that phone out on a plant bench in the rain overnight. It was lit up, too, when I found it the next morning. It lay in state for a week, all lit up, and then began to decompose.

Now we have no cordless phones at all. Which is a problem for a family of hard-bitten multitaskers. Anyone who talks to me for long hears: running water rattling birdcage papers dishes being put away laundry being hung out beds being made feeders being filled aquariums being siphoned vegetables being chopped ladybugs being swept up things being sauteed and the like. Being on the tetherphone drives me nuts. I called Bill to confess my serial murder and he ordered another one just like it but with three handsets. I said, "Good, that'll give me two to drown and one to use for awhile, until I drown that one, too."

The best thing I did today was collapse at about 2 pm, my nose buried in Chet's shiny fur. It wasn't much of a nap, because he had two dreams about chasing bennehs, cats, or cows, hard to tell which. Muffled barking, clomping of jaws, much paddling of paws and rapid eye movement.
Still, lying there with Chet in my arms seemed to keep me at home plate.Look closely for cutelips. I wish to thank all those who suggested the alternate posting option of Flickr.com, and especially William Stiteler for teaching me a way to post photos again. Blogger, go sit in the rain until you light up.

Make a Zick Sighting

Just a quick post to let you know that if you'd like to see me in person, I've FINALLY posted a list of appearances on my web site. I don't know if you could properly call it a book tour, but it's a list of peregrinations. It will grow from here on out, but it's a start. One request: As you approach, quickly blurt the word, "BLOG." Then I'll know that you know waaaay too much about me, and we'll proceed with due caution. Here's the link.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Oh, Thank Heaven!

Every October, along about Halloween, they come. Billions upon billions of them, swarming over our house, working their teensy way into every crevice, clustering around the windows, pooping on the glass in tiny sticky orange spots. From there, they find their way into light fixtures, where they die by the hundred. They also appear in our food, our hair, our mouths, in the glasses of water at our bedside (gulp in darkness, foul, acrid taste, ptooo! curse!) When they get on our necks or arms, they bite, a hot needle. They are everywhere.

We rarely see them before Halloween. But we just got an early taste of what this winter's going to be like. A warm October afternoon, just the kind of day you want to be in and out of the door. And there were so many Asian Multi-colored Ladybird Beetles (we prefer the tag, "f-in bugs!") that opening the door for even a few seconds welcomed several hundred inside.

All over the country, the same thing happens. The beetles are particularly attracted to tall, light-colored structures on ridgetops. Duh, that's our house to a T. From late October until May, we live with these things crawling on every surface in our house, stinking up the vacuum cleaner bag. Every evening, I sweep the kitchen floor, netting a dustpan absolutely full of dead bugs. Their frass collects like brown dust on all the windowsills. They stink to high heaven, they bite, and they are absolutely disgusting. And there is nothing we can do about it.

I know several women, who I will not name, who I know for a fact would not survive having their homes so infested. They would simply up and die of horror. I pray that these people will never have to host 10 bazillion ladybugs each winter, as we do. They would go barking mad.

But I am thankful, deeply thankful, and I'm sure millions of other homeowners, host to billions upon billions of ladybugs, are thankful too. Because these highly beneficial insects, we are told, eat alfalfa aphids. That's why they were imported from Asia. There are so many good things that have been imported from Asia. Hmmm. Multiflora rose, walking catfish, Japanese honeysuckle, Ailanthus trees, and kudzu, to name just a few standouts. And if there's anything that's worth putting up with this infestation, year in and year out, it's a reduction in the number of alfalfa aphids in this poor old world. And so we sleep well at night, drinking ladybugs in our bedside glasses, brushing ladybugs off our pajama sleeves and digging them out of the folds of our necks, knowing that the alfalfa aphid is finally under biological control.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Walking Season

This is the cow pasture where Chet likes to cheat death. See why I can't stay away? I have to watch it change day by day. So he goes on the leash. I'm learning. He never will.

If there's any season for walking, it's now. These ravishing, brilliant days will be gone soon, and the gray murk of winter clouds will settle over us like an unfriendly hen. (And this was written yesterday, a breathakingly beautiful day. And today I am under the Ohio Valley cloud-hen, not happy, for once, to be prophetic).

The air of October makes me glad to be alive, glad to be mobile, able to walk and breathe deeply. It makes me remember to be thankful for these things. It's so easy to get too far inside your head and think that you have real reason to be miserable. Get up out of your chair. Go outside. Breathe. Look up at the cloudless sky and think about all those who can't go for a walk in the October sunshine whenever they want to.fallcolors
Don't waste an October day. Drink it in, like a fine old wine. Finish the bottle yourself. Throw your head back, close your eyes, and open them again to the colors. The sun will leave soon enough.
Remember to watch the sumac turn. It turns before your eyes, and then it's gone. A wet day, a gust of wind, and it will give up those flaming leaves and stand naked until April. Look at it now. That especially goes for ash trees, who are very beautiful, but afraid of rain and wind.
I like the way McKenzie's ponytail switches when she walks. I look at Phoebe and know she will be patting me on top of my head before I know it. As for Liam: My father always said that when kids get together in a group, the youngest always has the most fun, just for being included. And Liam led the way on this Sunday walk and felt important, and every now and then he'd comment, "I like my life. I'm glad I have you for a Mom and Daddy for a dad. This is a fun walk. This is a good place to live." Things like that. Hearing that from Liam, who has habitually looked for the dark center in every silver lining, was a balm to my soul.

In the end, all we can do is look for our own joy. Hooking your joy into someone else's-- allowing it to become completely dependent on theirs-- leads into a pathless thicket. When I lived in Connecticut, I wandered into a few thickets of mountain laurel. You step over, duck, step over, duck, trip, fall, step over, duck, and eventually lose your way. When you emerge, you're thoroughly muddy, beaten and scratched up.

Well, I'm learning
It's peaceful

With a good dog and some trees
Out of touch with the breakdown of the century
We're not gonna fix it up
Too easy
(Joni Mitchell, "Electricity")
photo by Shila Wilson thank you for the walk and the pictures

Sunday, October 15, 2006

What is: Chet Baker?

Creature without whom I cannot live.

There's a Jeopardy question for you.

Sparked by a post by Jess Riley on her terrific blog, about her parents' aged Springer spaniel finally going to her rest, I began thinking more deeply about Chet. About what he means to me, about what life was like without him, about where we're going together. About the time that's coming all too soon, when I'll have to say good-bye to him. Yes. He's only two. But I think about it all the same, because I love this little dog too much.
Chet did something this morning he hasn't done before--he began whining at 7:06, the time when I should have been up and stirring. This raised a red flag for me; it was Chet stepping over one of my lines in the sand. He's my dog. He doesn't get to say when I should arise. And so I met him in the living room, behind the baby gate that keeps him honest, that keeps him from jumping into bed with just anybody, with a stern scowl on my face. "No. You do not whine in the morning. You do not tell me when I'm getting up. I tell you when you're getting up." And I booted him out into the frosty air on the minuscule chance that the whine meant he just had to offload. And as a cold reprimand for this oversight on his part.
We're evolving, Chet and me. Most of it is sunshine and daisies. He really is as cute and smart as he looks in his pictures, and as easy to be with. But we have our moments, too. He pushes, I push back.
I've been cooking this post for several days, and it really was just going to be a Chet Baker rhapsody in black and white, and then today dawned bright and clear and breezy; frost had just taken my zinnias and tomatoes (the earliest first frost I can remember); I worked like a demon all morning and had three drawings done by noon, and I got an attack of wanderlust. Called Shila and begged her to come out and thrash around The Loop with me. Bring your clippers.
So at about 1:45 p.m. that's just what we did, started clipping briars and sumac and spicebush, all the junk that's grown over the path since last spring, Chet happily roving around us. You have never seen a dog so happy as he was when Shila appeared at the door wearing hiking boots, camera and binoculars. That means only one thing. Actually, I had told him around noon that it was going to happen. He was lying in the sun, gazing at me, drumming a message into my brain. Do something, dammit! You just SIT all day long!

"Chet, you know what?" He raised his head. What? I just called Shila (ears prick) and we're going to go for a walk (head pops up) on the Loop! (leaps up, full play bow, roo roo roo roooooo!)
Scamper, cavort, boing boing boing.

Shila arrived, festooned in optics, clippers in hand. We snicked and snacked our way along the trail, clipping multiflora rose and black raspberry brambles wherever they crossed the path. We got to the Overlook where there are often cattle grazing just over a barbed-wire fence, and I leashed Chet to be sure he wouldn't try his luck with cow hooves again. There were no cattle in sight, so I let him off the leash. Shila and I stood soaking up the autumn colors for awhile, buffeted by a fresh cold wind, and then turned to go. A short way down the trail I realized I'd dropped my clippers at the overlook, and turned back to get them. Chet dashed along with me, unleashed. Duhh. My mistake, as usual. We got to the overlook, not five minutes after we'd left, and suddenly the pasture was full of cattle. Chet's ears came up, his head came up, and he was off, completely ignoring my furious shouts to come back. Our first bovine event of the autumn walking season. Obviously, his on-leash encounters with cattle had done nothing to dim his ardor for having his head stove in by a cow's lightning kick. He darted into the middle of the herd, which included a big Angus bull and a red-and-white crossbreed cow who was like Texas toilet paper--she warn't takin' sh-t off nobody. She steamed out after Chet, head down, and I saw this dear dog's death rolling out before my eyes. I squirmed under the fence, cutting an inch-long gash in my scalp as I did so, and lit out for the clot of cattle. Hoping the bull wasn't pugnacious, hoping I could get to Chet before he did. Chet was absolutely ignoring my shouts, immersed in the crowning canine glory of rounding up cattle. (Shila pointed out that he IS half bulldog, and let's think about what bulldogs did for a living...bull....dog...get it?) She also pointed out, after we caught our breath, that today was Friday the 13th. That's Shila, always making connections.

This time, I wasn't going to wait for Chet to be done playing with cattle. I was going to MAKE him be done with it. So I ran down the hill into the pasture and whacked the living daylights out of him. I felt horrible doing it, because when he saw me right there he came slinking up to me Oh, you called? and I KNOW you don't smack a dog that's just come to your call, but...he'd been ignoring me for what felt like an eternity and I had to drive the message home right there in the middle of his crime. It's the first time I've given him more than a light slap in his two-year life. It was the kind of spanking you give a child who's just run out in front of a truck and survived it. It came from a deep YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THIS primal place in me. Unbeknownst to me, the red and white cow was charging up behind us, but I was so mad she'd have been really sorry had she tackled me. Bring it on, Bossy. She must have caught my scent and changed her mind at the last minute, and Shila, who was watching the whole thing from atop the hill, heaved a sigh of relief.

Shaking with anger, blood seeping into my hair, I escorted Chet back up the hill on his leash, hollering at him the whole time. We thought to head straight for home, but both Shila and I realized that wasn't the thing to do--we had to salvage this beautiful day somehow. So we got back on the trail and resumed cutting briars, which turns out to be a good thing to do when you're shaking with anger. The sticks and punctures and thorns in your socks go well with your mood, and you're fighting a foe you can defeat. Chet hung around much closer than usual (he'd better!) and after awhile of pretending he didn't exist I knelt down and he crawled up to me for some face to face apologizing. He got beef stew on his kibble for dinner.

Chet Baker just padded into the studio and leapt up on my lap, catlike. His short shiny coat smells like fresh-cut wood and cinnamon. He's as fresh and sweet as a newborn fawn. His jowls are soft, his tongue is warm and almost dry. There are 23 tiny black hairs on my white computer keyboard, another 500 on my pants. My arms are wrapped around him, my cheek is on his withers and as I said, I love him too much.

It hit me this morning that I'll probably be in my 60's when it comes time to say goodbye to Chet Baker. That was an enormous realization. This pact with a dog is a far-reaching thing, one that I did not enter into lightly. It took me thirteen years to screw up the courage to do it.jnursingchet

photo by Ric MacArthur

This dog will see me through menopause, if he doesn't get killed by a red-and-white cow or a coyote first. There will come a time when I will have to decide not when, but whether he's getting up the next morning. If we're lucky enough to make it that far together, that's what I have to look forward to. I can't bear that thought, but it's there anyway, pacing around in my head.

Chet Baker is not even two. He's already left an indelible print on my soul. What will the future bring? I can't begin to address these questions where my children are concerned; they're too overwhelming. My kids will outlive me; they'll just have to see what becomes of me as I age and fail. They'll have to address the questions about me. I think it's knowing I'll outlive my dog that makes me think about him in these terms. I've barely gotten to know him, and I already dread his loss. Such is the pact we enter, the ground we give up, when we fall in love with a dog.

photo by Shila Wilson

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Danger, Will Robinson! Cranky Post Alert!

Here's how our yard is looking these days. Unnaturally green from all the rain this summer and fall, with a crown of burnished gold. Oh, these are the sweetest days.

I wish I were in a rhapsodic mood, but Blogger has once again robbed me of my joy. Here's how it goes with Blogger these days. I avoid it. And then the pull of all my blogfriends (I actually typed blogfiends) starts to drag me into the studio. So I heave a heavy sigh, look at my OCTBLOG photos, and decide which ones I'll subject to Blogger's capricious slicer-dicer-julienne fryer of a photo-uploading machine. Sometimes it'll take one, and cut the other three or four in half. Well, I composed those photos, and I happen to like the bottom half of them. So I try four or five or ten more times, and it keeps cutting the same photos in half. Anybody out there, Blogger? I mean, it's been almost a week now, and YOU'RE BUMMING ME OUT. Sucking my will to live, and certainly cramping my style. Before I know it I've been cussing in front of my monitor for an hour and a half, just trying to get one blessed photo to upload in its entirety. I've renamed them, massaged them, sprinkled holy water, done every contortion I can think of to dance the dance Blogger seems to want me to...nothing doing.

It pains me to present to you most of this lovely little Lincoln's sparrow, resplendant in his finely penciled streaks and ochre breast wash, shot right out the studio window. Rest assured that his toes were in the original picture. I adore Lincoln's sparrows. Luckily, they're waterhogs, and they are quite attracted to our Birdspa's never-ending trickle. The LISP's come through in late September and early October, always a treat, always a surprise. We had two gorgeous swamp sparrows blow through (one kind enough to make a cameo for the Big Sit, when I found him from towertop by his melodious, lisping Schpink! chip). A blue-headed vireo paused briefly in the birch today, and a young female yellow-bellied sapsucker posed for her portrait today whilst drilling the bejesus out of the same poor birch. I got a great picture, but it'll have to wait, I guess.
Nobody loves a whiner. Sorry. I'm like a mom with a big pot of homemade stew and a kitchen full of hungry mouths, but somebody stole my potholders, bowls and serving spoon. Frustrated.

The Moldy Hummus diet has been a smashing success, if you don't count the puking and writhing. (That was all over with night before last). I'm back to fighting weight, having lived on a small bowl of rice, two hard-boiled eggs and a mache salad for the last 2 1/2 days. I can hardly stand the smell of food, even though I know I should eat. Soon enough my appetite will kick back in but for now I'm going with it. By my math, it takes 2 1/2 days of fasting to undo one day of Big Sit fooddebauchery.

OK. I've had enough for one night. I'm just too cranky to go on, and you deserve better. In writing this post, I've tried ten times to upload ten different photos, just to see if I could find one Blogger liked enough to swallow whole. Nope. So I'm going to bed, where I'll fall asleep reading Marley and Me by John Grogan. It's well-written, a #1 Best Seller, but it makes me squirm. I keep trying to find Marley, the yellow Lab who's the star of the book, something other than simply annoying. I'm trying to love him, but can't. Don't get me wrong--it's a good read, but I find it upsetting from the perspective of a dog lover. From what I can tell, many of Marley's problems (the subtitle is Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog) stem from separation anxiety. He's left alone all day, locked in a garage while his owners are at work. What's he supposed to do in there, write War and Peace? If Marley wrote the book, what would his subtitle be?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What Goes Down…

Blogger's still at it. I have the most adorable pictures of Nurse Polka-Dot that it refuses to upload. Got this one uploaded fine and then Blogger opted to cut it in half for good measure. Went back and tried again four more times. That's got it. Maybe it's Blogger's way of making me paint with words. Well, it's working. %$#$*^%*^(&(&^+_))()(& Oh--I'm in my blue period.

Uh-oh, food again. Those of you who are with me daily might have surmised that I’m a pretty careful eater. There’s algae involved, and a lot of soy protein powder. There's thought about each darn thing that goes into my gob. At one time I was 24 pounds heavier than I am now, and I crashed on the Atkins diet to get rid of the excess. It worked like magic for me. Got it off and kept it off, but only by radically changing the way I eat. In retrospect (that was about 6 years ago), I think that there’s a lot about the Atkins diet that’s sound, and a lot of it that’s just downright scary. I mean, bacon, eggs and sausage every morning for breakfast? Here’s your nitrates and bad cholesterol, dear! (plate hits table). That part of the Atkins plan, I think, is dangerous hoo-hah.

The good nutshell I took away from Atkins, and that I employ to this day, is to stay away from white food. Pasta, bread, chips, processed snacks, baked goods, soda, juices and most importantly sugar. Sugar does nobody any good. It makes my joints ache when I get up out of a chair, and it bloats a body, and it makes me rev and crash in crazy sinusoids instead of puttering along steadily like a well-tuned engine.

So how in the chocolate-covered hell could I be a good girl for week after week, dutifully drinking my vegetarian, non GMO-soy based wallpaper paste for breakfast and lunch, and then have ONE DAY (The Big Sit) of splurgation, and gain EIGHT POUNDS? I stared at the scale. This has to be a mistake. I rolled the little zeroing wheel back and forth. Jumped on and off the scale, uttered an Amazonian ritual chant. Nothing doing. Bill came in, looking spooked. The day of indulgence (mostly white foods, not surprisingly, crispy orange foods, with some dark brown foods and a half-pound of sugar) had upped him by ten.

I waited, figuring I was just retaining water. Two, three days. And it did not come off. Why, in the name of all that is good and holy, why (tearing hair, hands lifted in supplication)?

I dunno. But there it was. So here’s what I did. This is another crash diet that I do not recommend.

Yesterday, for lunch, I pulled out some hummus and crackers and butternut soup left over from the Sit. Chowing down, I noticed that the roasted red pepper hummus tasted odd. A bit moldy. A lot moldy. But being of generally cast-iron constitution and fastidious nature, I swallowed it, rather than spitting it out in front of Bill, and moved on to the other things on my plate. That was my first mistake. There were more to follow.

We had a rich—make that superrich—dinner. Bill got hold of the mashed potatoes while I was out puttering with plants, and introduced half and half, cream cheese and an unknown amount of butter, enough to make this usually forbidden white food taste preternaturally good, in the grand tradition of the Thompson family. Gravy on top of that. I gorged.

Went to bed feeling odd. Tummyache doesn’t quite describe it. Spent the rest of the night hugging the porcelain throne, unsure which end of myself to point at it. Utter, abject, moaning, hands -and -knees- crawling purging. There was a lengthy session at 1:30 AM, and another at 4:15. I slept not a single wink, despite being mostly horizontal for eight hours. It was like being on a nocturnal pelagic trip that just wouldn't end.

I am sitting here in jammies; it is noon. Make that 7 p.m. I am useless, raked out like a butternut squash skin, unable to even look at food, knowing that Bill’s superrich mashed potatoes and roasted red pepper hummus may forever take their place on the Zick no-no list. The body has an almost eerie capacity to remember what it thinks made it sick. For me, it had always been red licorice and cheesey poofs. Now there are a couple more.

Good news: the pounds are coming off. Another day of fasting ought to do it. But please, don’t try this yourself.

Through it all, Chet Baker has never left my side. He’ll sit, ears flat back, gazing at me, then look off into the distance in his doggy way, as if to say, “That’s OK. Go ahead and moan and writhe. I’ll be here.” Other than periodically planting both paws on my stomach (blaaaa!) to have a better look at me and wash my face, he's the perfect sickbed companion. Dogs know that just staying with someone who’s suffering is the greatest gift of all. Bill looked at the tableau and commented that Chet has the wrong markings to be a candy-striper; that he’s more of a polka-dotter. So his name for today is Nurse Polka-Dot.

Woozily, and hoping for a better tomorrow,

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I'm Nothin' Without Me Photos

Most of life is not nearly as photogenic as a big group of people in bright October sunshine. And so I bring you more images from our gathering of bird lovers. Or, make that... I had hoped to bring you some images. Blogger is out of its tiny harebrained mind, and has been for two days. Poor Bill of the Birds flogged his computer for a couple of hours tonight trying to get a post done. It wasn't pretty to see or to listen to...Life is much too short. I've been fighting the useless fight to post photos for two days and I ain't fighting no more.

Opted instead to pot up a bunch of geraniums, lobelias, bromeliads and the like, and fill up the greenhouse in anticipation of plummeting temperatures on Wednesday night. I hauled hanging baskets of fuchsias, dripping blossoms; huge pots of bougainvilleas, blooming bromeliads, a jade tree with a trunk as thick as my arm, pots of miniature Hawaiian impatiens, a standard gardenia, a peach hibiscus, abutilons, and on and on, arranging them all on the greenhouse shelves that have sat bare all summer. I do believe that this is the first time I've conducted the big move-in before Halloween, and the first time I've done it in shirtsleeves. Better for the plants and for me to check the weather and pot stuff in warm temperatures.

Oh, how I love my greenhouse, how I love cheating Winter of its dreary victories. (a line, plagiarized from my book, so it isn't really plagiarism; it's simply uninventive.) Stocking the greenhouse was my reward after another day lashed to the drawing table, depicting flying teal and shoveling shovelers. I really like drawing birds, and it's a good thing: I've got to get 100 more drawings done before December. If you think about that, it's pretty scary, considering that I've still got to figure out what the kids are going to be for Halloween, we're hosting another largish gathering here two weeks from now, we've got a long trip to New Mexico in November, and there's a little thing I like to call Christmas right around the corner. I chip and chisel away at the mountain of work before me, repeating the mantra: "It's just work. It'll get done." So Blogger can go see Mrs. Piggle Wiggle about its problem: Slow Eater, Tiny Byte Taker.

This is the most I could get posted: half a picture of me, flanked by my personal Witches: Jen Sauter and Shila Wilson. Weird, huh? Too bad ol' Blogger chose not to depict our fabulous racks (speaking strictly for my friends here). These women have gotten me through some rough waters this year, swooping down like big birds to save me at the first peep of distress. Via phone, email, voicemail, and in person, we understand each other, reflect and most importantly, listen to each other. I truly don't know what I'd do without my several-times-weekly dose of girlpower. I go into spasms of withdrawal when either Jen or Shila are on the road. I guess that's what cellphones and wireless Internet are all about. Here's to you girls, my personal psychic EMT's. You are loved and appreciated.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Baker's Big Sit

When Chet Baker wants to go up to the tower, he comes up beside me and literally tucks himself under my right arm. I hoist him up and carry him, sometimes under my arm, sometimes thrown over my shoulder, up the two flights of narrow wooden stairs to towertop. Baker always wants to go up to the tower when we go up. And so he spent almost all of Sunday with us in the tower, sitting big.
Like everybody else, he likes to be able to see over the retaining wall (which is at a height exactly calculated to contain adults who've had a few too many glasses of Cabernet). So we set up a stool for him and lift him up to it. He knows to sit perfectly still on this stool, because the slightest tremor from him and it starts tottering, which sends him into a panic. He watches for birds and bunnies and accepts strokes and caresses from anyone passing by. For a Boston terrier, this is pretty close to heaven.
When the wasps got really bad up there, swarming by the dozens around our heads as they will on warm fall days, Shila and I took a nice walk out through the orchard, and Baker came along. We plopped down to talk and Baker busied himself making ever-widening circles through the woods. After about 40 minutes he finally got tired of waiting for us to do something interesting, and found his way back home through some pretty thick brush. I was proud of him. He's no dope.
We climbed back up to the tower to socialize and wait for more bird species to fly by. Baker assumed his position on his stool, but his eyes got heavy and he curled up for a catnap. His hindquarters kept falling off, so he asked to be put on the floor, where he decided that Rondeau Ric's Tilley hat was as close to a dog bed as he was going to find.
Boston terriers seem to be infinitely compressible. At this point, we were stalled at 63 species, and we all felt like curling up on a hat. So we cracked open some beers instead.

A Triumphant Sit!

I've just waved the last houseguest good-bye. The house is quiet but for Richard Thompson hammering away at his Strat. I'm exhausted in that deep core way that results from the preparation and execution of a large event. The kind of exhausted that brides are after their weddings, that festival planners are after their festivals. I feel like a gerbil that's just been plucked off its wheel in mid turn. My body is still going almost frenetically, but my brain is definitely out of gear. I think it unhooked at our gig Saturday night (which went really well).
The Big Sit was really fun this year, even though there weren't any stunning birds or records broken. The colors are really just coming in, but they were beautiful nonetlheless, a balm for the eye.
The birding was great all morning, and then the doldrums set in, and we really didn't see much more for the afternoon and evening. It hardly mattered; we were yakking and laughing so much that it morphed into the social event that it really is (it's just barely disguised as a birding event). This year, it was also a gastronomic spectacular, with Anne MacArthur taking laurels for bringing the best food from farthest away. Nainomo Bars, please! Think dark chocolate and frosting and almonds...carrot cake, peanut butter banana bread with butter...poppyseed rolls...ohhhhh... Here's Rondeau Ric, a very very lucky and spoiled man--who appreciates his unique position as Anne's husband very much. Bill's mom Elsa drove out special to bring a still-warm blueberry pie that had people taking seconds and moaning in delight. Jason brought fabbo meatballs. Marci brought Dutch apple and pumpkin pie. There were dips and finger foods and chips and cookies...it was just ridiculous. Vats of chili and squash soup simmered. The fridge is crammed and groaning with leftovers. They never eat as much as you think they will.
The weather was spectacular, warm and sunny, sweater to shorts to sweater weather in the lovely fall way. The birds were beautiful. We had lots of warblers for mid-October, including a male Nashville that wanted to be on the cover of Bird Watcher's Digest and posed accordingly. Bluebirds were hanging around like dirty shirts, giving me the hairy eye, wanting more mealworms. Yellow-rumped warblers checked and fluttered everywhere.
I spent most of Saturday running last-minute Big Sit! errands while our dear friend Jen and Bill got the tower set up for business. One of the things Bill scrawled on my shopping list was Fake Owl. There are two kinds available at Apex Tru-Valu Hardware, it turns out: the ugly plastic static owl, and the bobble-head owl. I gulped and shelled out $25 for the bobble-head owl. It netted exactly no reaction from a single bird as it bobbled away out in the meadow. Nuthin'. It had a guarantee on the box, a guarantee of what I do not know. I guess to repel birds. We were hoping to attract raptors like sharp-shins and merlins,which isn't exactly the point of the guarantee, is it? So I guess we're stuck with a Halloween decoration.
We got a new butterfly for the property: a Giant Cloudless Sulfur, a migrant from the deep South, flashing and skipping over the goldenrod, the most amazing clear lemon, huge and unmarked, unmistakable. #69! Yayyy! When you think about it that's a whole lotta butterflies for one 80-acre piece. Of course, that's 14 years of watching, too.
At dusk a large bat that was probably a hoary bat made a number of low circles over the tower. What an amazing beast it was. It had a very pale belly and a long tail. It was impossible to get much more on it, other than that it wasn't dark in color, and that it was big. Oh, for a field guide to bats on the wing! I need one! As I watched it , it really sank in that this is our only true flying mammal, beating its wings and making its way in the world just like a bird. Our friend Peter King asked me, "Do bats have hollow bones?"--I don't know! Do they? (A Google search for the truth was equivocal. Some sites perpetuate the notion that they do, on what authority I know not. It turns out that they have marrow-filled bones, just like we do, so the answer is no). I love those moments of epiphany, when some simple truth like "This is a flying mammal!" suddenly arrows into my soul. It's a pure flash of wonder, that can't be manufactured or summoned.
I'll post more tonight, when I hope Blogger won't be acting so strangely. It's gagging on my pictures. This post has been entirely too much of a struggle... There are too many cute pictures of Baker doin' the Big Doggie Sit! to post now. I've got to lash myself to the drawing table and crank out at least two pieces of art today. Later!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Blowing Out the Pipes

Chet Baker loves band practice. He gets to sit on Uncle Steve (our fearless drummer's) lap and get his polka-dots tickled.

Thank you, Uncle Steve. Now I will make your chin shiny clean.

It was one of those days when the sky just weeps uncontrollably, when you feel the whole winter rolling out before you with more and more and more of the same. Somehow Bill and I had to summon up the energy to have an evening band practice for a gig happening this Saturday night. But wait, you ask. Isn't the Big Sit starting at dawn Sunday morning? Don't you have a houseful of guests coming Saturday? What's this about a gig, too? Don't you have some cleaning to do? Welcome to the wacky, whizzy world of Bill and Julie, who live as if their hair is on fire. Who have the metabolism and focus of a couple of frickin' shrews, running around and self-actualizing ourselves right into our graves.

I had the notion, well, somebody told me, that band practice started at 6:30 p.m. So at 5:45 p.m. I started serving out four plates of roast (I'm going to say it, cover your eyes) chicken, mashed potatoes, and cornbread. A car rolled up, closely followed by two more. It wasn't even six. The rest of the band had arrived, and they were hongry. Make that seven plates. I'm holding it together at this point, but just barely, trying to make a smallish hen and two large potatoes stretch seven ways. Whomped up some milk gravy to ease the sting of the small portions. We all got fed. Then it was down to the practice room.

I felt about as much like raising my voice in song as donning a tutu and doing a couple of twirls around the room. And yet...the first guitar chord struck, and Steve started whapping his drums, and Marty got his groove on his bass, and Vinnie overlaid some celestially tasty keyboard, and we just got down and played, and it was righteous. We only had an hour's worth of music to work up, and the couple of hours of rehearsal just flew.

Then it seemed like we were all done, and Bill pulled out a couple of sheets of lined yellow legal paper. That always means he's been writing songs, late at night downstairs all closed off where nobody can hear. They were freshly scrawled, illegible to anyone but him.And he set up a rhythm on his guitar, and everyone came in, and it sounded like a traffic jam where everyone is laying on the horn HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK. Like they're mad. Like they've been in the July sun for an hour or two and they've had it and they're hungry and fed up and their engines are starting to overheat. It was heady and ridiculous and unbelievably compelling. The kind of riff that makes you stomp both feet at the same time, like a happy idiot who sits in the corner twisting a bit of cloth. And then he started to sing, and the lyrics fit the song perfectly, furious and exasperated, biting right into the painful core, juice flying everywhere. Everybody but me was playing like crazy. I was sitting there watching my husband, his hands beating the blue-eyed crap out of his Strat, his eyes closed and his feet with a life of their own, scissoring and stamping, and there were tears pouring down my face, knowing brilliance when I heard it. I was flattened by the G's, like the guy in the old Memorex ad with his hair streaming straight back as he faces the speakers. This guy howling out his rage and frustration, sighting down the barrels of a lyric and blowing a hole out of the opposite wall, was my husband. I always used to imagine I knew him pretty well. I've come to realize that there are corridors in his soul that have collapsed in on themselves, blocked by solid rock, and I'm on my knees with a headlamp, tapping with my tiny chisel, wanting in.

We'll play Rewind Myself on Saturday, and see what Marietta thinks of it.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Day My Book Came Out

Such a deal you got on this furniture, Mother. I approve.

Today, October 4, was the day my book officially came out. October 4 was the target date for all the stores to have it stocked and on the shelves. So it's not quite the ceremonial splash that one might think. I thought it might be illuminating to you to see how I spent this momentous day. It was to me. The day rolled out somewhat differently from what I'd envisioned a year ago, when I found out that the publication date would be October 4, 2006. I don't know what I expected to happen today, but here's what actually happened:

1. Got up and got the kids ready for school. Made breakfasts, packed lunches.
2. Kissed them and Bill good bye.
3. Drank a preparation of algae and grains.
4. Checked e-mail. Got a comment about being a chicken-murdering hypocrite on my otherwise shiny happy blog.
5. Diddled around fielding email and comments for much too long.
6. Bawled, but not about being a chicken-murdering hypocrite. That was no news to me.
7. Called two best friends, got calls from two more.
8. Did an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer about the book.
9. Did three loads of laundry and hung them out on the line.
10. Sorted the recycling and lugged it out to the garage.
11. Moved the lawn furniture off the grass. This is not a trivial task since I went a little wild with the super-heavy on clearance Martha Stewart where-am-I-gonna-put-this-over-the-winter-lawn furniture this year.
12. Mowed the lawn.
13. Raked the lawn.
14. Plumb forgot to pick the kids up at the bus stop, something I've never done before.
15. Tried to think of what to start for dinner. Somehow chicken does not appeal.
16. Realized I ought to blog. This is what came out. Blaaaap!

The day is yet young. Who knows what romance awaits?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Big Sit! on NPR

Our tower in full glory, crowned with Big Sitters, Phoebe playing in the yard. Photo by James R. Hill III

If you listen to National Public Radio's afternoon news show All Things Considered this very afternoon, October 3, you may hear my voice, yakking about The Big Sit, Birding's Most Sedentary Event. It's happening this Sunday, October 8. All things in national media are fluid, and it may get bumped, but right now it's up for consideration. The commentary also includes vultures and a rotten chicken. Now are you intrigued?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Peregrine, Headlands, October 1

I thought it would be good to see a peregrine
This being fall and me aimless
Shall I walk the beach, or the woods?
Out here, the wind tears at my clothes
Diffident, no desire in its hands.
I plod across the muddy flat
There's no salt in the air
No bouquet to this inland sea.
This is where I chose to live.
I can’t fault the waves, low and spiritless,
or wish they would rise and curl over,
sharks knifing in the aquamarine.
This is Ohio. This is the landscape at hand.
I look up and scan the brightness
And she comes, beating hard from the west
Circles low over me.
Her back is gunmetal
Her mustache looks good on her.
She beats her way to the lighthouse.
I’d walk an hour to cover what she just flew.
I'm no more to her than a bit of flotsam, a log on the mud
Registered and just as swiftly forgotten.
She heads east
White sand and curling waves
Closer with every stroke of her wings.
For Jen

A Gentleman, Rewarded

Naturalist/illustrator David Carroll, author of The Year of the Turtle, Swampwalker's Journal, and Self-Portrait with Turtles, has won a MacArthur Fellowship. Oh, my stars.

The $500,000, no-strings-attached fellowships, announced Tuesday 9/19/06, by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, recognized people in a wide variety of fields. The grants are awarded by an anonymous 12-member selection committee and the foundation's board of directors. The foundation has named 732 fellows since 1981.

"These awards are about more than money. They carry an affirmation not only of individual creativity but also are a mark of respect for a whole field of endeavor," said Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation. "These are activities that society doesn't always give proper due or comment to."

Naturalist Author/Illustrator
Warner, New Hampshire
Age: 64

David Carroll has the eye of an artist, the mind of a scientist, the voice of a great storyteller, and the soul of a conservationist. An illustrator, author, and naturalist for over forty years, he has made voluminous, detailed observations of the ecology of the deciduous hardwood forests and wetland habitats around New England, especially near his home in central New Hampshire. His understanding of the plants and animals that comprise these natural systems makes him a valuable resource for herpetologists, ecologists, and conservationists, providing a meticulous chronicle of life in areas threatened by human encroachment and imparting essential insights for those attempting to protect them. Freshwater turtles are the central focus of his studies, particularly the increasingly rare spotted and wood turtles. With an artist's sensibility, David Carroll immerses himself in wetland environments, gaining a deep understanding of the lives of swamp-dwelling creatures and the threats to their survival. He has published four books on aspects of natural history and wildlife preservation, including Swampwalker's Journal (1999), detailing his expeditions and illustrated with precise sketches and maps, and Self-Portrait with Turtles (2004), a memoir that describes his lifelong fascination with swamps and the creatures that inhabit them. Through his artwork, writing, fieldwork, and speaking, Carroll helps people of all ages see the beauty, history, and value in swamps, marshes, bogs, kettle ponds, and rivers.

David Carroll received a B.F.A (1965) from Tufts University. He is the author and illustrator of Trout Reflections (1993) and The Year of the Turtle (1991), in addition to his more recent books. Carroll‚s artwork has been exhibited at such institutions as the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Dartmouth College Museum and Galleries, and the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. He is also an active lecturer and consultant to conservation institutions throughout New England.

Carroll has lived most of his life as a freelance writer and illustrator. He and his wife, who is also an artist, have raised three children and constantly struggled financially. For three decades, he said, he and his family have gone without health insurance.
He recounted once talking to a friend who was trying to persuade him to buy an answering machine. If he did buy one, he recalled telling the friend, then he would record a message that said: "If you are calling from the MacArthur Foundation, please leave a message. All others, please call back."
"It's such an affirmation," Carroll said of the fellowship. "To be able to look ahead and know that I have a period of time to focus mainly on creative efforts and not the daily staying afloat that most of us have ... it enables my concentration on expanding my creative efforts."

"Moving about like a separate creature, his head glides in a measured turn on his arching neck, along the water surface, back to face me. I look into those impressive eyes: a white fleck of daylight shows in the gold-ringed, jet black pupil from which five black slashes radiate on a ground of amber and blue scattered with black dots. There is a distance in them, a coldness; they are eyes filled with stars. I look into them and look back into an unfathomable time and point of consciousness. It may be in such eyes that the universe first discovered a way to look back upon itself."
Thanks to my good friend Dr. Bill Belzer, another passionate, tireless turtle advocate and MacArthur candidate if ever there were one, for sending me the terrific news. Text, most of it, lifted from a MacArthur press release. Images brazenly lifted from the University of Connecticut's library web site.
David Carroll, lifting wetlands, turtles, and all of us along with him. Thank you, MacArthurs, for noticing.